Mutinous Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers sympathetic to opposition parties are removing arms from military bases in preparation for a prolonged war against the allied forces of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The soldiers have retreated strategically to the mountains where they have been able to delay the fall of their Makonyane army headquarters to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), despite a heavy artillery and mortar onslaught from the two armies.
As SANDF and BDF troops desperately tried to stamp their authority on the mountain kingdom, LDF troops, forced out of their barracks during this week’s skirmishes, were reportedly regrouping to continue their battle against what they perceive as a foreign invasion.
Some of their weapons from the barracks are believed to have filtered into the capital, Maseru, and surrounding villages to assist civilian armed resistance against the SADC troops.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili held an emergency Cabinet meeting at his official residence in Maseru to discuss the deteriorating situation in the country and the mutiny of his armed forces.
Civilians are openly brandishing rifles in the streets, despite the heavy contingent of armed SADC troops. An LDF lieutenant, who refused to disclose his name, told the Mail & Guardian that most of his colleagues have prepared themselves for a guerrilla operation should all their bases fall to SADC.
The lieutenant said if the SADC forces thought they could exhaust the LDF’s ammunition supplies, they were in for a big surprise. “To us there is no other option but to fight on. If we retreat, we may be arrested or even killed. The fact that some of them [SADC forces] have been killed shows that we are also serious about our mission,” he said.
Added another LDF officer: “We know we may not be as powerful as the two [Botswana and South Africa] armies but we are confident we can hold on for a very long time. We believe the SADC miscalculated our capabilities.”
Soon after the SADC intervention, named Operation Boleas, began, the miscalculations were evident. The SANDF sent in about 600 soldiers to engage at least 2 000 members of what was known as a rebellious LDF contingent, which boasted strong support from armed civilians.
The SANDF also had no clue of the routes to most of its targets. The army is reported to have driven to the Lesotho Sun hotel, in the opposite direction of its intended target of King Letsie III’s royal palace. The SANDF had to rely on journalists to tell it how many palace gates there were. SANDF commanders had said there was one palace entrance, instead of three.
Finally, the BDF took almost to 48 hours to join its South African counterparts in the operation, suggesting a lack of co-ordination between the command structures of the armies.
By the time the SANDF had managed to identify its targets, the LDF was already briefed about the SANDF’s presence and capabilities, and had prepared itself for an onslaught.
LDF members boast they knew about the impending attack as early as last week. As a result, the SANDF was caught unawares – also about the extent of the resistance the LDF and civilians could put up.
So far, nine SANDF members have been killed – a figure disputed by the LDF as conservative – and many more were wounded. Realising the situation was getting out of control, SANDF commanders were forced to bring in reinforcements to root the rebel Basotho soldiers and armed civilians out of Maseru.
On Wednesday, LDF members consistently fired on SANDF patrols in a display of power and determination. The frustrated SANDF fired warning shots that were quickly returned. A few hours later, the SANDFbegan assaulting citizens who were looting the city centre.
Said an injured SANDF sergeant: “It is true that the situation here is much tougher than we thought it would be. It is complicated. We have suffered casualties, but at least we are beginning to gain control of the area.”
Sensing that the Lesotho soldiers were firmly behind them, opposition leaders openly dared the SANDF and BDF to continue their mission at their own peril.
Molapo Qhobela of the Basotholand Congress Party said the allied forces were betrayed by the battle-shy ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy Party (LCD) who had lost touch with what was happening in the country.
“He [President Nelson Mandela] is honestly deceiving himself. As soon as the SANDF leaves, we go back to square one. I am not going to disclose what we are going to do,” Qhobela said.
Local residents also responded to calls by the opposition to chase off SADC soldiers, burning down most of Maseru’s central business district and looting whatever remained of the city.
Angry youths also sparked what started off as anti-South African sentiment to an open assault on all foreigners – with Indians, who control most business in Lesotho, and journalists being prime targets.
The youths hijacked cars on the city streets and stripped their victims of valuables before ordering them out of the country. One of them, Romora Mokoena, articulately claimed that the attacks were meant to show the Basotho anger with the SADC initiative.
He contended that while the Basotho are peaceful people, an attack by the SANDF on the royal palace was considered an assault on the whole nation. “Whoever ordered this invasion should have had the decency at least to consult our king prior to this. We are not a rebellious nation, we are decent,” he said.
Calls for restraint from the newly formed youth organisation, the Social Democratic Party, were largely ignored by its claimed constituency. Party president Masitise Seleso described the conflict as “a manifestation of Lesotho’s political intolerance since independence”.
He says while he and the youth did not support the SADC initiative, none of the local parties – including the LCD – can claim innocence in the ongoing conflict. “We are seeing the germination of the seeds of decay inherent in our political system.We are witnesses today of cold and calculated brutality and bestiality, a desperate attempt of a generation to stay in power.”